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ColdFusion: Article

Do We Really Need These Newfangled ColdFusion Features?

What Were They Thinking?

Several weeks ago in the #coldfusion channel on the Dalnet IRC network we had a rather spirited discussion about some of the new features in ColdFusion 8. The discussion focused on <cfimage> and its related tags, and whether ColdFusion developers actually needed such functionality as part of the product we have all come to know and love.

In recent weeks, as I've heard public discussions by Adobe about some of the new features of ColdFusion 8, and as I played with some of them as part of the public beta, I realized that the discussion could have been about any number of features that are a part of ColdFusion 8.

I can't remember where I heard or maybe read it, but sometime ago there was some buzz in the community because a respected member made a claim that most ColdFusion developers only use about 10 tags. Maybe I have the number wrong, but I think you get the point. There are two new tags, and related tags, that I think will bump up that number, <cfimage> and <cfzip>. I know that currently there are several products we can use for image manipulation, as well as for creating and using zip files. I also understand that most of these products are essentially a wrapper for Java functionality available to any ColdFusion developer using ColdFusion MX or higher.

For a lot of ColdFusion developers, using any of these products, or Java itself, aren't options. There are a wide variety of reasons, but one that stands out in my mind is ease of use. Some of the products that exist that perform tasks we have in ColdFusion 8 aren't easy to use. Learning how to interact with Java, or for some people learning to use CFCs, might be enough of a hurdle to dissuade their use. The mere cost of learning these tools might limit their usefulness. Keep in mind the "easy" is a relative term. If you asked the developers of any of these tools or any of the OO or Java gurus who are part of the ColdFusion community they'll tell you these tools are easy to use, and may even think they're not needed. However, for a lot of developers, they aren't easy to understand much less use.

I was drawn to ColdFusion because it was easy for me to create applications my employer at the time wanted. I spent about a year programming an intranet application in PHP before discovering ColdFusion. In about a week, I was able to recreate enough of the intranet application in ColdFusion to persuade my employer that the cost of the server licenses would be more than compensated by my increased productivity. It took me about six weeks to rewrite the intranet application as a ColdFusion application. How was it possible to take an application that took a year in one language and rewrite it in six weeks using ColdFusion? The answer is obvious: ColdFusion is easy.

So, to answer my question, do we really need <cfimage> or <cfzip>? Yes, we do. We need them so ColdFusion remains easy. We need them so developers who may not or cannot use third-party tools for image manipulation can create more powerful and compelling applications in a fraction of the time. We need them so developers who only have access to shared hosting and can't invoke native Java objects can create the applications they want and deserve.

This discussion can go beyond the coding features of ColdFusion 8. Do we really need server monitoring? A lot of ColdFusion developers probably don't work on applications so big or heavily visited that server metrics would even be on their radar. I must admit the server monitoring tools in ColdFusion 8 are awesome. The amount of information you can collect about your server is astounding. To be able to view live data about memory use, database statistics pertaining to slow running queries, and stats about individual page requests is quite impressive, but is it necessary? I think so because ColdFusion isn't only easy, it's powerful.

<cfimage> and <cfzip> make it easier to accomplish fairly common tasks. Server monitoring gives us a tool we can use to streamline our applications. I think that the server monitoring tools, even on the smallest applications, offer us something no other language or application server can claim. The server itself can help us learn to be better developers. By studying the database statistics we can see which queries are taking longer to run. This may lead us to look a little closer at our SQL statements to see if we can make them more efficient. By watching the data about page requests, we may be inclined to look at our ColdFusion code itself and see how we can code more efficiently, or even to begin caching practices we've otherwise overlooked. At the very least, it will give us an idea of where to start looking when we eventually have the chance to work on an enterprise-level application with performance issues. The best part is we don't need to install anything else; we don't need to fiddle with third-party libraries or products. All we need is access to the ColdFusion administrator.

There are two other groups of tags that I think make ColdFusion easier and more powerful. <cfexchange> and <cfpresentation> give ColdFusion developers functionality I'm not sure exists in any third-party tools or easily recreated by the average developer using Java. I will admit that when we got our first glimpse of <cfpresentation> at CFUnited last year my response was lukewarm. Yes, I thought it was cool, but what purpose could it possibly serve? As I started playing with ColdFusion 8 and tried out <cfpresentation> I realized that it has myriad uses. With very little code, developers can create presentations covering a vast array of uses including employee orientation, annual reports, online training, and in-services for new products or procedures. <cfpresentation> makes it not only easy to create, but update, these presentations.

I know of quite a few developers who would love to easily include some basic e-mail functionality via Microsoft Exchange into their applications. I know that a lot of information can be gleaned from later versions of Exchange using <cfldap>. However, I think some might be more inclined to try to learn Java than muddle their way through LDAP and the directory hierarchy that exists in Exchange. <cfexchange> offers not only the ability to retrieve mail, contacts, and appointments from an Exchange server, but to create new contacts, tasks, and appointments as well. I know of a handful of developers already working on applications that will mimic Outlook Web Access (OWA) functionality using ColdFusion 8. So now their intranet mail application is written in a language they feel more comfortable with, as well as having the mail application fit within the standard Web template for their respective companies (I know this can probably be done now with OWA, but it's ASP, or whatever flavor Microsoft is using these days, and what ColdFusion developers want to punish themselves like that?).

I haven't had the time to use every new feature in ColdFusion 8. But I have made a point of trying out all the features I thought were excellent additions to ColdFusion, as well as the ones that initially made me wonder, "What were they thinking?" I can say without hesitation I don't think there's any new feature that doesn't add value to ColdFusion for ColdFusion developers. Each new feature makes ColdFusion easier and more powerful. Whether you'll use any of these new features immediately, or six months down the road, ColdFusion 8 gives us new tools to make it easier to create powerful applications even faster than before. Don't get me wrong, there are some things I would have preferred over some of these new features, but each new feature adds something to the language we've come to love.

So, do we really need these newfangled ColdFusion 8 features? If you want ColdFusion to become more powerful, yet easier to use, and you want to become more efficient at creating applications and making your application code more efficient, the answer is a resounding, yes!

More Stories By Scott Stroz

Scott Stroz is a senior software architect at Alagad (http://www.alagad.com). He has been working with ColdFusion since version 5 and has been a Macromedia/Adobe Certified Advanced ColdFusion Developer since ColdFusion MX. He has developed and fostered a passion for Flex 2 and is the author of Flogr, a Flex-based ColdFusion log reader. Scott is also a blogger and frequent speaker at User Groups and conferences on various Flex and ColdFusion topics.

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